Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Portland-Boston options

If you're going from Portland, Maine to Boston, you have several choices. You could drive … if you like to be aggravated, spend a lot, have it take no less time and lose two (or more) hours of productivity. Or, you could take the bus or the train. This page has, previously, talked about buses and trains further south along the Northeast Corridor, but the conditions are different further north.

From Boston to DC, Amtrak is a luxury product competing with air travel, boasting faster travel times and more amenities. Buses are cheap (cheaper than Boston-Portland for twice the distance) but offer cramped seats, sometimes shady equipment and the opportunity to sit in traffic for six hours if you happen to hit rush hour (likely). From Boston to Portland, travel times are faster for the bus, costs are similar, and there is a sort-of symbiotic competition between the modes; the train actually provides mostly for trips which don't traverse the whole of the route, the bus serves air travelers, and both serve as alternatives to driving (there are no Portland-to-Boston flights).

Here's a quick comparison between the bus* and the train in several metrics.

(* We'll discount the couple of Greyhound buses along this route, which take longer, have no Wifi, and an overall inferior product.)

First, why is driving a poor choice? The costs, mainly (even if you have free parking at your destination).

Other maintenance$11----


  • Bus fares: $22 one way. $27 to Logan Airport. $32 same-day round trip and discounts for college students. Train fares depend on time of day, either $20 or $25 (a few very-off-peak trips are $15, college students can buy six trips for $76).
  • Tolls $3 in Maine, $2 in NH, $3 one way in MA (using Tobin Bridge).
  • Gas: 110 miles at 27.5mpg and $3.50 per gallon. Other maintenance: 10¢ per mile.
  • Add another $35 to get the IRS-computed cost of driving (55¢ per mile)
  1. Travel time — The bus is scheduled at 1:55, the train at 2:25. This seems like an easy win, right? Not entirely. Outside of rush hours or weekend getaway and drive-back times, the bus will probably arrive at its terminal faster than the train. During rush hour? The bus could spend an hour getting in to our out of Boston. Also, it partially depends on where you are going. If you are going to the Financial district or somewhere along the Red Line, the bus will get you nearer to the Red Line, although it's a bit of a walk. For the Green Line or Orange Line, it's more of a wash, and near North Station (say, for a basketball or hockey game) you'd be better off taking the train. If there's bad traffic, the bus will spend quite a bit of time getting from one side of downtown to the other. So, verdict: Bus, but not always.
  2. Frequency — Here, the bus winds, rather handily. It runs every hour for most of the day. The train runs five trips daily, although there are more frequent trips during rush hours, quite useful for outbound commuting during rush hour when getting from South Station to Route 1 is particularly bad. Verdict: Bus, except perhaps at the peak of outbound rush hour.
  3. Guarantee of a seat — If you go to buy a ticket for the train and it says it's sold out, it's sold out, no ticket. (You could board and play dumb and buy a ticket on-board by phone, but you might wind up standing. I'm not sure if Amtrak overbooks, but if you have a ticket they will let you on. When trains are sold out they sometimes check tickets on the platform.) On the bus, you buy a ticket, and it's good, well, forever, but there are no reservations: everyone lines up for the bus, and if there are more riders than there are seats, well, you wait for the next bus. At heavy travel times, this means that you have to show up half an hour before departure, negating any real travel time savings. Amtrak suggests you show up half an hour early, but I haven't been the only one sprinting down the platform to make a train. Concord Coach would have to amend its ticketing policy to allow for seating reservations (i.e. sell tickets for specific times) to guarantee seats. Which would be nice. Verdict: Train.
  4. Comfort — Here, the train takes the cake, as it can exploit economies of scale in a way that the bus can not. A bus is, basically, an airplane with a top speed of 75 mph, legroom-wise (the windows are bigger). The train has seating pitch equivalent to airlines' domestic first class and wider seats. And you can get up and walk around on the train. Verdict: Train.
  5. Luggage — The train and bus both have advantages here. On the train, you can carry on however much luggage you'd like and store it above you on the (large) overhead luggage racks. On the bus you can put luggage in the under-bus bins. You can take skis, for example, on either. Verdict: Both
  6. Bicycles — Both modes allow bicycles, with caveats. For the bus, the caveat is that the bicycle is only taken if there is sufficient room, which may not be the case at busy times (especially weekends when many passengers have luggage). On the train, bicycles are taken at all times, but there is a $5 charge, although you could probably get on without a bike ticket and no one would be the wiser. The bike on the train doesn't go underneath with the potential to get rattled around, an issue if you have an expensive ride. Verdict: Both
  7. Arrival times — While Amtrak suggests you arrive half an hour before your train, your ticket reserves a seat. On the bus, that is not the case. (see above) If the bus is full when you show, you may be waiting for the next one. (They don't specify this on the website, but suggest arriving especially early during the holidays.) Both experience delays, although not very frequently. Verdict: Both
  8. Airport service — Concord Trailways serves the airport directly, although they charge an extra $5 for the service, it is generally direct to and from Portland. Amtrak requires two transfers to the terminal, but for a $20 ticket it's less than the bus, even with T fare. Verdict: Bus
  9. Food — On the bus, you get pretzels and a bottle of water. On the train, you can go to the cafe and buy a beer. It's not free, but if you have your own water bottle Poland Springs is not that exciting. Verdict: Train
  10. Wifi/power/entertainment — This depends on how much you like PG-rated movies. If you do, the bus provides them for free. If you don't, the train provides slightly better wifi. Both bus and train have power ports. The peak wifi connection speed on the bus is 45 KB/sec. On the train the use several providers and it's over 100 KB/sec. Neither is fast, but one will load Gmail a bit faster. (Also, you can use your iPhone for ticketing on the train.) However, the train traverses some cell-signal-free areas in New Hampshire and Maine, the signal along I-95 is better. Oh, and if you make a phone call on the bus, you get yelled at; on the train you can go to the cafe or a vestibule and talk away. Verdict: Both
  11. Restrooms — If you have the choice, use the facilities at either terminal. If you require the restroom during the trip, the one on the train is slightly better. Verdict: Train
  12. From a transportation planning perspective — This is a bit of a harder question. Ostensibly, the bus breaks even but, of course, it is subsidized, significantly, by government-built and funded roads (or roads funded by the tolls of other travelers). The train has significant government investment in infrastructure, and a direct subsidy to cover operating costs (they'd have to double costs to break even). Both are energy efficient. Both are quite advantageous over automobiles. Taking the train may take a bit longer, but it's a more comfortable ride, and, perhaps, non-drivers shouldn't be forced in to uncomfortable conditions. The bus is at its top speed, but with more patronage and investment, perhaps, a train could make a non-stop trip in 1:30, which would easily negate the bus's advantages. But, for now, we'll go with a verdict of Both
So, which wins? Well, the train wins, 4-3-4. But really, the traveling public wins, with 25 daily departures along the route. Take whichever is more convenient, especially since travel time is probably the main factor for most trips and the bus (usually) wins out there. If you're interested in comfort more than travel time, the train is where it's at. For speed (and a movie) the bus is hard to beat, especially outside of rush hour. If you're in Portland and a bus leaves in 10 minutes with a train in two hours, by all means get on the bus. Plan your day around the schedules, but it's perfectly easy to treat the corridor like a transit system (albeit one with poor headways, although they are better than most MBTA commuter rail lines). Take whichever you'd like.

I will also point out that the Concord Coach provides one of the best intercity bus experiences I've had. Unlike many Boston-to-New York routes (and I'm including Bolt and Megabus, which will make random, 15 minute stops at gas stations in Connecticut for "snack" where is sure seems like there's some payola from the gas station operator for bringing in 50 captive customers) the service is very professionally run. The buses leave from terminals, not streeetcorners, the staff answers questions, and it does not seem like a two-bit operation. Considering that 20 years ago the only bus service to Portland was provided by Greyhound, Concord Coach has proven that the market can be captured and expanded (in 1997 they only ran 9 round trips daily) with service and quality.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Expanding reverse commute options in Boston

As with any city in the United States, many jobs in Boston are located away from the central business district, although those areas are not served by transit. Many jobs in Boston—in the Downtown, Back Bay, and Cambridge, are transit accessible, but many more are located in suburban office parks, far from the center of the city and with very limited transit options. There are shuttles from various transit nodes (namely Newton Highlands and Alewife) to locations along 128, mainly in Waltham. The MBTA operates limited bus service to the outer reaches of Waltham, Lexington and Needham along 128, although they are designed mainly for inbound commuting and their outbound scheduled times are likely too long for many commuters. There is limited availability and the speeds are not designed to be even close to being time-competitive with driving. However, there is ample office space which is inexpensive in comparison to downtown, and attracts all sorts of companies, even those with more urban employee bases.

There is transit service to near the Needham-Burlington employment node along 128 via the MBTA's Riverside Line, but with a dozen suburban stops, it takes 45 minutes to reach the terminus from the core. With added shuttle times, it would create a quite-long commute. Two commuter rail lines pass through the Needham-Newton-Waltham-Lexington region, but neither has a station at 128, and their schedules are certainly not designed for reverse commuting. (It is also less desirable for park-and-ride commuters from Riverside and Woodland, as travel times to Back Bay and Downtown are not particularly speedy.) It is with these commuter lines—especially the Framingham-Worcester line—that there is potential for that to change.

There are two recent developments which make this change more feasible. One is the now-underway expansion of the Yawkey Station (named after the long-time (and racist) Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey) near Kenmore Square in Boston. Originally built to access Fenway Park, the station received limited service in the 1990s on one side platform, but is being rebuilt to accommodate stops from all trains. The station is a short walk from Boston University's campus and the large Longwood Medical Area, both of which have significant employment and expensive parking. In addition, the parking lots surrounding the station will be redeveloped in to office space. With more frequent service, the station will better serve these communities.

The other new development is the (long-awaited) transfer of the Framingham-Worcester rail line from private ownership and dispatching (CSX) to the MBTA. The private dispatching has been blamed for delays which keep on-time performance on the line low, and the MBTA has been unable to increase service on the line west of Framingham because of limits in capacity. Still, the Framingham line sees ridership of nearly 20,000 (nearly 10,000 each way) a day (see this pdf for full statistics), second only to the Providence-South Attleboro line, which sees a significant portion of its ridership board at it's own station at Route 128.

There are three major problems with the existing 128 station. The first is that it is not located near a major job node. There are virtually no jobs within walking distance, and no major job nodes nearby which could be reached in a short shuttle trip. In fact, east of the station, the Blue Hills take up several square miles of conservation land, which do not create many jobs. The station does serve about 2500 MBTA passengers daily and another 1000 Amtrak travelers. The second issue is that, when it was rebuilt in 2000, it was forecast to have more parking revenue that ultimately materialized, creating pitfalls for projects like it which are funded by parking revenues. Even with some MBTA parking facilites, like the Alewife, overflowing, 128 station sees hundreds of empty parking spaces every day. 

These are exacerbated by the third: the 128 Station is located in the center of the least-population-dense area along 128. With the aforementioned Blue Hills on one side and relatively sparsely-populated suburbs on the other, there are few commuters who traverse several exits on 128 for the speedy trip downtown. Those coming up I-95 from Providence would likely use some of the park-and-ride stations further south, which, thanks to the high-speed nature of the line, have shorter-than-auto times to Downtown Boston (from Mansfield to Back Bay, for instance, scheduled train times average nearly 60 mph, along a much straighter line than the often-jammed highways). Commuters to the southeast use the Red Line service, and those to the north are served by the paralleling Needham and Franklin commuter lines. 

A bus/rail transfer station with commuter parking at Route 128 in Weston, near the intersection with the Turnpike, however, may prove much more fruitful to the business and commuting communities, as it would address many of the issues which the current commuting options do not. First, it would be a boon to 128-bound commuters. (A local planning group is in early stages of discussion about this type of project.) The intersection of 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike—which parallels the rail line—is only 11 miles from downtown Boston. Without freight traffic, rail service from Yawkey Station to this part of the line could be scheduled in 10 or 12 minutes—faster still if the grade-separated line was upgraded from a current speed limit of 60 mph. This would significantly shorten the transit time for many reverse commuters to the 128 corridor. Trains could be run at 20 minute intervals (they already are in the peak direction, so this would not require significant investment new equipment) with timed, coordinated shuttle transfers. In the future, an HOV/bus lane could speed these commuters to workplaces along the highway, and the current Riverside Line could be extended to this station. In addition to these outbound services, connecting bus service could be explored for inbound commuters with timed transfers at this station.

Such a station would not solely benefit non-traditional commuters. It would also be a boon to those Boston-bound (and, thus, not further encourage the less-than-ecologically sound movement of more jobs to the suburbs). With dedicated on- and off-ramps from 128 and the Turnpike, a garage could provide a seamless connection for park-and-ride commuters. Not only is I-90 more and more congested at rush hour (in both directions), but tolls are now $2.50 each way. Add in gas and parking costs, and $5 or $7 for parking to avoid the Turnpike would be a deal. In other words, there is already a $5 economic incentive to avoid the Turnpike, which could be a good push factor towards transit—if it were close to being time-competitive with driving. 

In addition, with more-frequent off-peak service levels, such a station would serve non-commuters as well. Visitors to Boston's many cultural and entertainment options could be enticed with an easy, comfortable ride, and one which would incur a significant cost savings over tolls, gas and parking. The MBTA already serves many customers going to Fenway Park, this could be expanded significantly.

Now, these options neglect to mention the fate of Newton's inner stations, which are currently served by some Framingham-Worcester trains. These stations—which once had frequent commuter service—were relegated by the Turnpike to one-platform stations with no reverse commute options. Still, these stations—Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville, average about 400 boardings per day, more than the further-out Wellesley stations which have more service. This corridor is one of the most densely-populated in Newton (moreso than the area traversed by the Green Line), and more frequent service would certainly result in higher ridership. A local-express service could be added through "The Newtons" with local trains departing the hypothetical 128 station and stopping in Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville (and, perhaps, additional stops in Newton Corner, Brighton and Allston) towards downtown, allowing transfers from service further west and multi-directional travel in Newton and Boston.

Here, for instance, is a potential schedule for this service and assumes some line upgrades. E = express, L = local stops, NB this is a general idea, and quite condensed, but does show that clockface scheduling (except for a peak-hour express from Worcester) would be feasible. This shows inbound scheduling; outbound would be similar (with a quick transfer at Route 128) with slightly later first and last trains:

6a - 9a, 4p-7p9a - 4p, 7p-10p
Framingham5:10a5:40a  6:10a:10:30:50:10:4011:40p

1285:30a6:00a  6:30a:10:12:30:32:50:52:00:3012:00a12:40a

Yawkey5:50a6:20a  6:40a:00:12:20:32:40:52:20:4012:20a1:00a
Back Bay5:52a6:22a  6:42a:02:14:22:34:42:55:22:4212:22a1:02a
South Sta.5:55a6:25a  6:45a:05:17:25:37:45:57:25:4512:25a1:05a

Finally, there are not-insurmountable logistics towards building this type of service. The first is the ability to run two-track service between Boston and Worcester. The main current impediment to this service is through CSX's Beacon Park Yard, which the freight railroad will mostly vacate as part of the deal with the state. This should allow the MBTA to build a second track through the area. Further west, service to the Newton stations would require platforms on both sides of the tracks, which is currently in planning stages for Auburndale (and likely relatively inexpensive for stations in West Newton and Newtonville).

The second is the ability to build a park-and-ride facility near Route 128. This, too, would present minimal issues—even for a three- or four-track station with local-express service. Why? West of Auburndale Station, the Framingham Worcester retains the four-track right-of-way which was present until the construction of the Turnpike between Back Bay and Framingham. The two tracks take up only half of the available real estate, and with shored-up embankments, there would be plenty of room for four tracks and platforms (currently, the right-of-way is 120 feet wide in this section). The office park to the north of the tracks could be connected to the station, and a parking facility could be built on the footprint of a large parking lot to the east of the offices. Furthermore, the parking facility could be connected, at rather minimal expense, to several of the ramps from 128 and the Turnpike, allowing easy access from the highways to the station. In addition, the station would allow access to the Leo J Martin Golf Course and Weston Ski Track, putting these recreational facilities within easy access of downtown Boston.

View Weston Sta. commuter rail in a larger map

Funding for this facility, and related commuter rail improvements would, of course, be a challenge. Certainly, parking revenues could help fund the parking facility, and maybe even subsidize rail operations. An additional toll surcharge could be placed on Turnpike commuters, but these drivers are already more burdened than others in Boston. Perhaps the nearby localities, which reap significant benefits from the office space in their midst, could be leaned on to help fund this type of project, which would benefit their residents and workers, and even provide some insurance to their suburban office parks against a future where higher gas prices make such car-centric facilities less economically desirable.

There is an obvious need for transit service along the Route 128 corridor. However, without smart investments in infrastructure, it will be hampered by slow service and unattractive to those who would most benefit.

(Or maybe I just want a quick train trip out to the Ski Track.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why the 2010 census does not paint a full picture

In a recent post, Andrew Sullivan linked an article by Joel Kotkin arguing that the trends shown by the 2010 census show a continuing flight both from cities to suburbs and from denser cities to less dense ones. This page has never been a fan of Kotkin, who is continually trying to reprove his thesis from 2005 that the suburbs were the way of the future and that the cities of the future were "Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Las Vegas." (Seriously, this 2005 piece gets just about everything wrong.)

I am not going to waste time arguing several of the points Kotkin raises (for instance, he extols falling condo prices without mentioning that suburban house prices in many markets have plummeted just as much) or go in to the politics of subsidized home ownership (Sullivan uses another blogger to point out that high urban housing prices stem from high demand and policies which restrict growth in supply, further subsidizing suburban housing). Instead, I am going to look at recent, post-housing bubble data that shows that Mr. Kotkin's thesis may be based mostly on the first half of the decade, not recent years. (He goes on to compare the 2009 American Community Survey and the 2010 Census, which are different data sets—so he's comparing apples to oranges.)

To do so, I am going to use the census data beautifully displayed by Forbes (and commented on by several, including the Kotkin). I'll concur with one of the other commentaries (all are worth reading, especially interesting is one point out the income difference between in- and out-migration) that there are large swings between 2005 and 2009, but point out that they are not only between certain cities but within them as well.

For each, I'll show the migration chart from 2005 to 2009, and then the local migration maps from 2005 and 2009. And, yes, it would be great to have data on a more granular level (i.e., by zip code) or more aggregated level (by metropolitan area) but these doen't exist, as far as I can tell.

1. Suffolk County, Mass. (Boston)

In the second half of the decade, out-migration from Suffolk Country went from well outpacing in-migration to falling behind it, and it fell while in-migration slowly rose. Locally, adjacent counties in eastern Massachusetts were recipients from Suffolk County each year, but further-flung counties, including sprawl-heavy Worcester County and those in Southern New Hampshire, flipped from receiving many migrants to giving them back.

Further afield, in 2005 Boston lost migrants to most every sprawling metropolis, including Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami. It gained population from all these centers in 2009. Middlesex County, including the very dense cities of Cambridge and Somerville (but large exurban areas as well adjacent to New Hampshire) shows similar, if less pronounced, trends.

2. Philadelphia County, Penna.

Philadelphia's migration trends are not as pronounced as Boston's—there is no switch from net out-migration to net in-migration—but it mirrors those of its northeastern neighbor. In the region, we can note a pronounced shift away from migration to far-flung suburbs, especially the second ring in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There are similar shifts to the nearby suburbs in both years (and a similar draw from North Jersey) but the out-migration to the exurbs disappears. On the national front, there were fewer major shifts (like in Boston) but still several trends away from less-dense areas.

3. Washington, D.C.

The demographic trends for Washington show similar patterns, especially on the national scale. It's out and in migration flipped, like in Boston, although the changes were less pronounced, as it never had the same mid-decade baseline losses as Boston. Locally, there was less movement towards some outer suburbs, although this can be confounded by the presence of Baltimore to the north, which doesn't really qualify as a D.C. suburb. Still, there was less movement to counties far off in Northern Virginia in 2009 than 2005. Nationally, DC lost residents to Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. By 2009, it was gaining residents from all of these.

While I wish I could go on this thread forever, I can't, because the data (here, at least) is at the wrong scale. New York City is broken in to counties, and it's so big that each county has different trends since there is so much migration within the city, as well as in to the city from the rest of the country. San Francisco doesn't show such trends within the metropolitan area because the population is so spread across counties, and except for SF itself, most of the counties have significant urban and rural populations. But, further afield, San Francisco saw dramatic changes: in 2005 it lost significantly to LA, Las Vegas and Phoenix, in 2009 it gained population from these three cities. And in Atlanta and Chicago (Fulton and Cook counties), there weren't major changes in national out-migration, but dramatic reductions in moves to the outer suburbs.

In any case, go and explore the Forbes map. It's a lot of fun, both from a geography-nerd level and an exercise in proving Joel Kotkin wrong.